Aboriginal heroes and adaptation

Recently my wife Jen prevailed on me to watch an episode of the documentary series The First Australians. Such programs tend towards the irritatingly sanctimonious and question-begging in my experience, and that may well be true of many of the episodes of this series too. However the one Jen had me watch was really excellent (see YouTube video over fold – also see part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5). It emphasised dramatically just how adaptable Aboriginal culture once was to to the dominant culture of the White invaders. Simon Wonga and William Barak of the Wurundjeri clan near Melbourne were truly heroic figures about whom all Australians should know more.

Those same features of adaptability (and in particular willingness to move and work to take advantage of economic opportunity) were also evident in the initial responses of Northern Territory Aboriginal people to European encroachment. Among other things they became the economic backbone of the pastoral industry.

Eventually the relentless racism of individual and systemic responses to Aboriginal people suppressed that inherent adapability and reduced most Aboriginal people to a state of sullen, despairing passivity. Even when racist responses began to be replaced by entirely benignly-motivated self-determination policies over the last three or four decades, the results were anything but positive. In fact the conditions of Aboriginal people in Australia’s north have continued to deteriorate on just about all objective measures. Attempting to understand why, and what might be done to change the situation for the better, is a question that has obsessed me for much of the 28 years I’ve lived in Darwin. I can’t comprehend how that would not be the case for anyone of conscience surrounded by the evident misery, violence and despair of so many Aboriginal people.

I’ve observed in previous posts that the answers are unlikely to be simple or short term, and that they will certainly involve Aboriginal people themselves in taking responsibility and confronting and adapting aspects of their own culture which militate against successful adaptation. What the story of Wonga and Barak brought home for me, though, was the extent to which Aboriginal society once did possess the necessary adaptive qualities. Moreover, and despite the appalling health and educational outcomes for two successive generations of contemporary Aboriginal adults, there is no reason why those qualities of adaptability should not manifest themselves again, if we remove the perverse incentives in our education and welfare systems which create and perpetuate welfare dependency. Although, as I say, solutions will be both multi-faceted and long-term, thinking about Wonga and Barak convinces me that Noel Pearson’s identification of welfare dependence as the key issue may well be correct. On the other hand, ANU’s David Martin persuasively argues that Pearson overstates the extent to which Aboriginal people will succeed in achieving the necessary adaptation unaided, and underestimates the extent to which co-ordinated but respectful government interventions will continue to be necessary.

Retiring senior NT bureaucrat Bob Beadman outlines the welfare dependency syndrome succinctly, as The Australian‘s Nicolas Rothwell writes:

Consider the “official” employment figures. According to the Territory’s reports, the total of unemployed people in 10 of the 20 “growth towns” was 292 in March. However, the number of people registered as notional jobseekers as a condition for receiving income support in those communities is 2454. It is the higher figure that tallies with the bleak statistics kept by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which lists indigenous people in the Territory as having the lowest workforce participation rate of any social group in its 34 member nations.

And why? Beadman identifies a simple reason. He has been a persistent critic of the “remote area exemption”, under which people living in bush communities are absolved of the need to look for work in return for welfare. It’s an old provision that lingers as an administrative tool in the welfare machinery, with the result that Aboriginal community residents have been able to decline jobs or training and keep their benefits. He gives the employment history of an Aboriginal area shire in the past 30 months. The data is stark: 1508 people started work, 1110 quit their jobs. This tells Beadman how easy it is to move from job to welfare and how little taste or discipline there is for work. Here, the bureaucrats are the problem.

“There is probably no other area of public social policy,” he contends, “where you will find such a yawning chasm between the repeated policy statements by the Prime Minister about the value of education and employment and the conversion by public service agencies of those values into practice.”

The persistent use of the exemption had a potent effect. It shaped the way bush Aborigines saw the world. It delivered a resounding message: “You never have to work again. The government will keep you for life.” This belief, for Beadman, lies at the heart of the remote-community crisis today. It explains why bush people tend not to embrace training and work, and see no value in education for their children.

“What continues to be of concern is the slowness to recognise the need to change when the faults of such a measure are irrefutable.”

And with these vigorous words, Beadman diagnoses the precise mechanics of the welfare trap. He argues that the work ethic that was often a striking feature of mission-era Aboriginal settlements has been lost, as has the culture of taking responsibility and providing for one’s family. This has flowed on to younger generations, and peer-group pressure hinders the efforts of any community members who seek to break out of the mire.

The one aspect that Beadman does not appear to address adequately (though Pearson certainly does in his writings) is that there will never be an adequate economic base in many remote communities to provide real jobs for even a fraction of their current adult population. Accordingly, removing the current exemption from normal social security work requirements for remote community residents won’t of itself change anything much. That raises the vexed question of whether unemployed people (not just Aborigines) might reasonably be required over time as a condition of continuing welfare eligibility to move to a place where suitable jobs and training are available. There are lots of arguments against it, but at least as many in favour. If we accept Pearson’s stark diagnosis of the corrosive effects of welfare dependency, this is a question we can’t avoid addressing. Pearson seeks to address it by attempting to construct for his Cape York community a self-determining system (with corporate help) whereby remote Aboriginal people are supported into training and jobs in larger towns and cities, with provision for regular return to their homeland to maintain kinship and ceremonial links. Maybe we should be starting to talk about building those sorts of flexible support mechanisms into our official social security system


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